Just Desserts by Oona Marie Abrams
Recently, I was out to dinner with my two sisters at a local bistro, and the manager came over to fill our wine glasses. When he stood at the table just a bit longer than felt comfortable, I realized why. It was David. All too well, I recalled suffering through a year as David’s tenth grade English teacher well over a decade ago. As David walked back to the kitchen, I leaned across the table to Peg and Tara. “Let’s find another place. He’s back there spitting in my food!”
Since I’m the third born, and their food was likely safe from harm, Peg and Tara ordered their appetizers, clinked glasses and laughed, even as I told them the backstory about countless detentions, phone calls home, trips to the office, and behavior contracts. Now, paradoxically, here he was, filling my wine glass, charming Peg and Tara, and I found it all a bit unsettling. All the adrenaline that once buzzed inside of him was put to its best use here, where he managed his staff with great aplomb.
When David came back to the table, we waxed nostalgic (kind of). I told him how much my life had changed. I was now married and the mother of four (very active) boys. David, as it happens, loves to read, and he does so each night, no matter how late his shift runs. (Are you there, guilt? It’s me, Oona!) “You know,” he said eventually, “I think school failed me.”
While I do admit to bristling slightly upon hearing this, it’s over a decade later, and I’ll admit I did fail David. What if I had taken the time to be kinder, to persist, to persevere? As Sir Ken Robinson says, “All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly.” (I take comfort in Robinson’s use of the pronoun “we.”)
I didn’t set out to “ruthlessly squander” David’s talents, but I certainly didn’t inquire. David was given zero choice in his reading for school. I handed over reams of xeroxed short stories, dog-eared copies of books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. I gave quizzes that he failed (or sometimes passed, even without reading), never once considering that his problematic behavior might best be assuaged by worrying less about how he was making me look and instead putting the right book into his hands.
What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and hand him other dog-eared books: Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Gladwell, Runyon, Burgess. To give him time in class, as I now do, to read what he wanted. To see the books in his hands, to confer with him, to have a doorway to some type of dialogue that wasn’t about power struggles and classroom management.
Yes, ten years ago, David made my life hell, a transgression he himself admitted to when he delivered a complimentary butterscotch pudding with our check. (How I wish all apologies came with free desserts. I’d be so much more forgiving to everyone.) But I made David’s life hell, too. I held him to a phantom standard. He didn’t see me reading and he didn’t see me writing. I stood in judgment of him, did my due diligence, made phone calls home, assigned, graded and populated the grade book. He passed. My standards were way too low then, though ironically, I thought they were quite high.
Thankfully, my practices have changed. In my reading intake survey last September, my students made their wishes clear. One student wished that teachers knew more about “the kinds of stories and books that students would find interesting to actually read on their own.” Another wished that the teacher could understand “my difficulty with reading boring books.” The response that tapped immediately into my regrets was this one: “At home, I am actually an avid and frequent reader, and have been since a young age.”
Reading workshop at the secondary level is hard work. Organizing book clubs is hard work. Finding the time to confer with over 100 students is hard work. But it’s all exciting and energizing work. My colleagues and I now descend upon local fill-a-bag book sales in a fashion that would rival The Running of the Brides at Filene’s Basement. We celebrate books with our students, and they see our passion for reading, and for finding them the right books. What if David could be in my classroom now?
As we parted ways that evening, I gave David a hug, a gesture that proved both risky and awkward. “If it makes you feel any better,” my oldest sister Peg told David, “She’s been making our lives hell for decades.” (So much for sorority.)
Years ago, I thought that one day David would get his just desserts, but as it turns out, I was the one who learned much more from the experience. David has shown me not only how far I have come on this wholehearted journey of teaching, but also the distance I still need to travel to reach each and every one of my readers.
A graduate of The College of Mount Saint Vincent and Manhattanville College, Oona Marie Abrams has been an English teacher since 1996. An active member of the NCTE, Abrams currently serves as editor of English Leadership Quarterly. Her blog, ELA in Permanent Beta, is a platform for reflections on teaching and learning, and she is passionate about being a connected educator. She lives with her husband and four sons in northern New Jersey.